Keith has kept pace with the modern game

Irish Daily Mirror - - SPORT - BY PAT NOLAN

THE more Keith Hig­gins’s game seems to evolve, the more it stays the same.

Along with Kerry’s Marc O Se, he’s been the pro­to­type at­tack­ing cor­ner-back since emerg­ing more than a decade ago and, like O Se, could be re­lied upon to pick up the op­po­si­tion’s blue-chip for­ward too.

His pre­de­ces­sor in the Mayo No.4 jersey was Gary Ruane, and their time on the panel over­lapped briefly.

The thing that most stood out about Hig­gins back then re­mains his most strik­ing at­tribute now, even at 32.

“Off the mark, he was one of the quick­est play­ers I’ve come across,” says Ruane (be­low). “He still has a great side­step at pace, he can go round a man and leave them for dead.

“He was a very good man-marker as well. But his biggest as­set would be his pace, com­ing out of cor­ner-back. If he can beat his first man it’s a huge ad­van­tage for Mayo be­cause it sets up so many at­tacks.”

Hig­gins’ stock was al­ready high be­fore James Ho­ran took charge of Mayo in late 2010, but he cred­its the Ballintub­ber man as be­ing piv­otal to how he and Mayo bloomed in sub­se­quent sea­sons.

Speak­ing a cou­ple of years ago, he said: “When I came in first, it was a matter of train Tues­day, Thurs­day and play on Sun­day. There might have been a gym pro­gramme, but it wasn’t ex­actly mon­i­tored or any­thing.

“You might go and you might not go and you might go down to the chip­per one of the days in­stead!

“But James just came in and changed the whole men­tal­ity, the life­style changed, the whole lot changed.”

Ruane notes Hig­gins is a much dif­fer­ent spec­i­men now, but hasn’t been com­pro­mised for that.

“Even though he’s got phys­i­cally stronger he has held onto his pace, which you don’t of­ten see. Some fel­las bulk up and they lose some of their pace but I don’t think Keith has. Even with his age, his pace is still huge.”

Like O Se, there was a view that Hig­gins’s foot­balling abil­ity would serve the team bet­ter in a more ad­vanced po­si­tion and Ho­ran switched him to cen­tre-for­ward mid­way through the 2013 Cham­pi­onship with some suc­cess. Ruane said: “James tried him there a bit and pos­si­bly maybe should have utilised him more there but he would be more at home in the backs, even though this year he’s get­ting up the field a lot. “I don’t think his scor­ing from wing-for­ward would be high enough in the modern game.”

In re­cent sea­sons, Hig­gins has been re­lieved of his re­spon­si­bil­ity as Mayo’s chief fire­fighter.

Although his duel with Kerry’s James O’donoghue in the 2014 All-ire­land semi­fi­nal replay was hailed as an epic, Hig­gins’ glass was half-empty af­ter­wards.

“You might say two of the goals were penal­ties but I wouldn’t have been happy in terms of my role in get­ting caught for them,” he re­flected.

“Ul­ti­mately he scored 2-6. I could have done things dif­fer­ently so you can never be happy with that sort of stat.” Bren­dan Har­ri­son has since emerged as Mayo’s go-to man to shut down the op­po­si­tion’s most po­tent threat but the evo­lu­tion of the game has helped Hig­gins shine in a dif­fer­ent way. With vir­tu­ally no one play­ing three in­side for­wards these days, the vet­eran is thriv­ing as a sweeper. “He seems to be more at home not play­ing a man-mark­ing role, but as an at­tack­ing cor­ner-back nearly,” says Ruane.

“The way the modern game is now, you don’t have too many man-mark­ers needed, they’re nearly mark­ing space more than mark­ing men and he gets that op­por­tu­nity to at­tack more.

“If he goes well again I can see him be­ing in line for an All-star and maybe Foot­baller of the Year.”

Af­ter his sea­son threat­ened to go up in smoke with a red card in the loss to Gal­way, that would be some turn­around.

HE’LL CARRY THE FIGHT Dublin’s for­wards got a taste of what to ex­pect from Keith Hig­gins ear­lier this year LONG WAY BACK Af­ter last year’s fi­nal de­feat ROCK SOLID Against Kerry in semi-fi­nal replay

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